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May 04, 2017

Op-Ed: Trump Signs 'Religious Freedom' Executive Order, Ending Democracy As We Know It

TRUMPINGTON, D.C.—This morning, President Donald Trump signed an executive order supposedly protecting "religious freedom" in the U.S., but which in fact is the first step toward guaranteeing that conservatives—and likely the subset of religious conservatives—will remain in power in the federal government far into the future—and as a sidelight, will probably signal the end of the adult entertainment industry in a few years. The text of the executive order was only made public at about 3 p.m. Eastern time, and it's a masterpiece of obfuscation. For example, it states, "The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government." That's true only to the extent that those "religious ... institutions" didn't attempt to involve themselves in direct political action, a caveat that's well analyzed in Geoffrey Stone's recent book Sex and the Constitution. It's one of the reasons that Article VI of the Constitution states, "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." But it gets worse. Under "Sec. 2. Respecting Religious and Political Speech," it states, "the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term 'adverse action' means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit." To put it more simply, and as Trump explained this section when he signed the order, it calls on (aka requires) the Internal Revenue Service to "exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment"; in other words, to ignore, almost entirely, churches and clergy who meddle in politics by endorsing political candidates and specific pieces of legislation, in direct violation of the IRS Code—and no matter what this order says about "to the extent permitted by law." Or as the Washington Post reported earlier today: "For too long the federal government has used the state as a weapon against people of faith," Trump said, later telling the religious leaders gathered for the event that "you’re now in a position to say what you want to say … No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors." Back in February, at the White House's National Prayer Breakfast, Trump told his religious supporters that, "I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." He essentially reiterated that promise when he told the audience present for the signing of today's order that, "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced ever again." AVN published an analysis of the Johnson Amendment back in November, but in short, what the IRS Code basically says in its Sec. 501(c)(3) is that it exempts from federal taxation organizations "organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable ..., or educational purposes" so long as "no substantial part of the activities of [the organization] is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." [Emphasis added] That part in italics is the Johnson Amendment, added to the Code in 1954 at the instigation of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, and it makes perfect sense. Anyone reading this article, whether they are religious or not, certainly knows someone (and probably lots of someones) who are religious, often devoutly so. There are in fact tens of millions of people in the U.S. who regularly attend a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious gathering, who engage in prayer to a "supreme being" of some sort, and most importantly for this point, believe that what their clergyperson is conveying to them through his/her words are the commands of the supreme being they worship—and that to disobey such commands is tantamount to rebelling against that supreme being and, for Christians in particular, a sure path to eternal damnation. Now, as bad as that political action on the part of religious groups might be, this is, after all, the United States, and its supreme law is the U.S. Constitution, whose First Amendment says, in pertinent part, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech." But what the Johnson Amendment recognizes is that some religious institutions—most notably in the U.S., Christian churches—are enormously powerful, in part because they claim to be preaching the "will of God," but also because as a whole, they are massively wealthy, owning vast amounts of untaxed property in every state and paying no income taxes whatsoever on contributions made to them—many of which funds, if they wanted, they could put towards political campaigns, far outstripping the amounts that ordinary, non-affiliated candidates would be able to raise on their own. Because to the extent that any institution is tax exempt, all of the public goods and services it uses, like firefighters, police, public hospitals, roads, libraries (and on and on and on) it doesn't pay for; people who do pay taxes, aka taxpayers, do! So the Johnson Amendment is, in a sense, a necessary compromise. It basically says, "Sure, all you priests, rabbis, ministers, imams, bishops, prelates, et cetera, you can say whatever you want, condemn anyone or anything you want, support or disparage any political candidate or piece of legislation you want—but if you do so, you lose that status that allows you to avoid paying taxes on your properties, on your clergy's salaries, on your monasteries, your rescue missions, your whatever, and puts you in the same position as every taxpayer in the country, unable to put your untaxed wealth toward political activities." Now, it's sad but true that since the Johnson Amendment was enacted, it has almost never been enforced. Exactly one church has been stripped of its tax-exempt status: the  Church at Pierce Creek, in Binghamton, N.Y., which took out newspaper ads in 1992 warning Christians not to vote for then-candidate Bill Clinton. But the amendment did make churches and the like more cautious in their public statements for a number of years—until religiously-oriented law groups like the well-funded Alliance Defending Freedom (total revenue of $61.9 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015) began exhorting clergy to take part in "Pulpit Freedom Sundays," where those clergy were encouraged to endorse religiously conservative candidates (all Republicans) for office and/or warn their flocks not to vote for Democrats—and last year, 450 of them did exactly that, with no action at all taken against them by the IRS. But the sea change brought about by Trump's executive order is that for the first time ever, a U.S. president has essentially said that neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor the U.S. Department of the Treasury (of which the IRS is a part) will be enforcing the law which prohibits candidate endorsements by clergy—and those who don't think that churches in some parts of America won't be taking the pulpit this Sunday and telling their congregants not to vote for candidates such as Jon Ossoff for U.S. Rep. from Georgia, Rob Quist for U.S. Rep. from Montana, Phil Murphy or one of the other Democratic candidates for Governor in New Jersey, or any of dozens of others running for office, are just fooling themselves. And that's where the American experiment in "democracy" comes to an end. The path is simple, really: 1) Conservative candidate announces that he (or, less likely, she) will be running for such-and-such an office. 2) Said candidate begins making the round of churches and other religious institutions to give speeches to parishioners, possibly coupled with direct endorsements of the candidate by the presiding clergyperson (or possibly that endorsement will come later—and in any case, liberal candidates will not be permitted to speak). 3) Clergyperson makes literature supporting the candidate available at the church and on the church's website; maybe holds rallies for the candidate. 4) As the election draws nearer, the clergyperson makes stronger and stronger pleas for the candidate's election, possibly (likely?) telling the parishioners that God supports the candidate and/or that God condemns his/her opponent—and that to vote for anyone other than the candidate is a sin. 5) Candidate is elected by a huge majority. Picture that happening at every level of federal, state and local government. The result? A religious dictatorship voted in by the very people who claim to support the "religious freedom" guaranteed by the Constitution. And it's probably not necessary to add that in due time, making sexually explicit content will be made illegal, and those who do so will be sentenced to long prison terms. Just thought you'd want to know. "We're a nation of believers. Faith is deeply embedded in the history of our country," Trump said today. "No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the American government and the tenets of their faith." And pretty soon, if things go according to plan, they won't even have a choice.

 
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